The word “polytheism” entered English from a Latin word (polytheismus) formed from Greek roots which mean “many gods”. The Latin passed into French as polytheisme. It is first used in English in the early 1600’s. This is important to note: the word comes into our language in Europe at a time when Christianity is at its height of influence, religiously and politically. In short, polytheism was a Christian word, and it was created to help draw distinctions and divisions between those who are not what Christians value — monotheists (also a Christian word). Given that this word was created by Christians to distinguish those who are not like themselves and done so for their own theological, philosophical and culturally specific conversations, I am not at all sure why someone who is not Christian would want to use it. The history and meaning of the word have their starting points in Christianity.
Without presuming to speak definitively for all Christians, I think it important to note that the Christian understanding of the divine includes, among other things, a Creator who is wholly other and separate from the creation (while still able to work through the creation); who is omnipotent and omniscient; and who is One, hence the label “monotheism.” Since Christianity created the term “polytheism” as a term to use to distinguish other religious practitioners from themselves, I think it very important to hold definitions of polytheism at arm’s length and observe how those definitions prevent us from discovering an experience of divinity that such monotheism simply cannot imagine.
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines polytheism as “the belief in and consequent worship of many gods.” The definition is not complicated, but I would suggest that it is thoroughly Christian in a way that may not serve all those who follow other paths. I am both a Druid and a Unitarian-Universalist. I am comfortable with the description of “agnostic” because, finally, I don’t always know. The definition above is useless to me for all three of its components. Let’s take a brief look.
Believing in the one divinity and believing in the correct doctrine is essential to Christianity. In my opinion, the believing is circular as well. Christians believe in a life after death that becomes each person’s final judgment, either resulting in an eternal torment or an eternal paradise. Eternal destiny is determined by whether the individual believed in the one true divinity and the true doctrines. Christianity defines polytheism, that is, others who are not like them, as having a “belief in... many gods.” That is a Christian presumption that other religious paths require belief as it does. What of those paths that do not require belief? I am in conversations very frequently with Druids, Wiccans, and those on an eclectic path, and they bristle at the idea of “believing in” their gods and goddesses. Granted, there may be modern pagans who “believe in” their deities, but my experience is that this is Christian language and that it does not always fit the experience of others. Very often I, and others I talk with, speak of “working with” one or more divinities — which leads to the next issue.
The Christian definition of polytheism includes not only a belief but the worship of many gods because the Christian understanding of divinity requires that the creation should return all glory, honor and praise to the only one who deserves it — the one true god. This presumes that people of other religious paths see divinity as totally other and superior to the creation. As I noted above, I often use the phrase “working with” to denote how I connect with a divinity. When I encounter or call on Ceridwen or Cernunnos, it is much more a horizontal relationship than a vertical one. I do not come to them to offer praise, glory and honor, but I come respecting that they embody something of the wisdom that I seek in order to walk my path. When I have received something in that work together with them, I offer gratitude, just as I do to anyone else who helps me.
This is really the sticky question. The Christian definition sees those on a religious path other than their own as holding belief in and consequently worshiping many gods because they must distinguish others from themselves. Unfortunately, they do so by creating a difference that is simplistically the opposite of their own approach to divinity. Monotheists believe in and worship the one (true) god. Polytheists believe in and worship many gods (which by Christian definition must be false). Those are the only choices. Or, are they?
I practice a Druidry which is of the modern, revivalist type. That means that we are not trying to recreate an ancient Druidry, but, based on what historical markers, symbols and stories we have, we are creating a modern Druid path. We make use of historical information, but our Druidry is here and now, in and for this world. We can speak of working with Danu, the Dagda, Brigid and Lugh, Cernunnos, Ceridwen, Angus Og and Hu — and we speak of Spirit. We speak of the interconnected Web of all Being. We speak of the One. We speak of the Universe. We speak of “the god” and “the goddess”. We speak of the All. I personally consider the individual gods and goddesses, so called, as names and faces that allow the Interconnected Web to step up and speak to me and I to the Web. I am the Web. Danu is the Web. We are of the Web together, and each in our own way, at any particular moment in time stand out from it, represent it, and touch deeply into it.
I do not have an experience of One or Many. I have an experience of One AND Many, and I am clear that I am part of the One myself, and that I often work with the Many. I do not bother with beliefs and almost never use the word. I am interested in experience, images, symbols and meaning. When I listen to other modern practitioners of earth-centered mysteries, of chthonic rites and wisdom, I hear them expressing a similar dynamic. I do not think that this is a phenomenon that modern Pagans have created, either. I have encountered people of Hindu faith who express their relationship to the hundreds of thousands (some number one million) divinities in the same way. They have devotions to this one and that one, but all are part of God. I have found similar expressions from practitioners of Native American religions.
All of this, finally, is for me a way of making sense of what has been called “divinity”. I find it plausible to my rational mind that we are, in fact, a part of an Interdependent Web of Existence. Subjectively, I find many ways that I connect with that Web, physically, emotionally, intuitively, psychologically and psychically. Finally, when it comes to gods, goddesses, spirits, etc, I find all of those to be verbal and sometimes imaginal representations of that Web in a subjective moment and time. I would never claim that my experience of the Web contains all truth that someone else must adhere to, but I do claim that my experience opens me to a wisdom for my path. Since we are connected through the Web, honoring that experience of mine may, in turn, affect others and vice versa so that in incremental ways, over time, through time and space, what we experience as subjective individuals has "cosmic" effect. To be honest, this helps me make sense, in a metaphysical sort of way, the current level of war and destruction in the earth at this time in our history. We are all connected through the Web, but a great many human beings who make up that Web believe that they worship a divinity that is the only true one, that is totally separate from creation, and who ultimately will destroy this world. Those of us who divine divinity more holistically find this a deeply painful time to live in. It is as if the Web itself is fighting itself.
I am a humanist, and I am comfortable with the word "agnostic" because, finally, I don't know. But, I trust my experiences, and I trust that this understanding of an Interconnected Web of all Existence. I sometimes drive the other humanists around me mad when I talk in a way that includes many gods and goddesses or the possibility of metaphysical interconnection. In some respects, secular humanists are also monists. They only allow for belief and respect for one thing—the rational mind. I agree with them in their dislike of the word "god." I find that most of the spiritual language that Christianity has used has been made difficult for us, at least in this generation. So, I struggle to find words, but I also resist simply becoming a rationalist. I find pure rationalism to be a cold, lifeless way. I love my rational mind, and I love using it, but I am convinced that mind is larger than my rational mind, and so, rationalism is incomplete.
Systems that see things in dualistic categories really reduce the adventures possible for human beings in the world. Those of us who are on modern, earth-centered-mystery paths might want to ponder whether we want to take on language created and defined by other religious systems. These words come with a price, and very often, hinder our ability to be understood. Imagine a conversation with someone who finds that you are a Druid:
A: You are a Druid? So, you are a polytheist.
B: No, I’m not. Polytheism is a Christian term, and it doesn’t describe my understanding of things at all.
A: So, do you believe in God or not?
B: Belief is not a part of how I work with the divine.
A: So, you don’t believe in God?
B: That’s not what I said. I said that “belief” is not a part of the way I work with the divine.
A: So, what do you do?
B: Well, there are a number of divinities whose names I know, and they each represent something of the Whole Universe to me. For instance, Cernunnos is a god whom my Celtic ancestors honored. He represents the forest and animals who live there. He also represents what it means to be masculine and wild and magical. So, when I need to work on or want to connect with those things in my life, I imagine him here and we talk. Sometimes, I meet him in the woods. Sometimes, he calls me to the woods.
A: So, you do believe in many gods.
B: That’s not what I said. Belief is not a part of how I work with the divine...
And so that conversation might go. It might just devolve into circuitous conversation, and I’ve seen that happen. It might leave the questioner with more of his/her own questions and some new insight into how it is that we make sense of the divine. We live in a day, as I suggested above, where a way other than dualism is deeply needed for the future of our kind and this planet. A majority of human beings believing in the ultimate destruction of the world will, finally, see to it that that happens. There are those of us who sense another way. I think it is time for us to speak that into the Web.
Bob Patrick has an eclectic path both in terms of spirituality and academic work. Raised a Methodist, he has a BA in Biblical Literature, an M.Div in theology, and is currently working on a PhD in Latin and Roman studies. He has worked as clergyman, theologian, teacher and massage therapist. He is currently a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association, is a founding member of the Druid Order of the Three Realms, and an Ovate in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids while working as a full time teacher in Classics. He is a partner is Earth Mysteries, LLC, which offers workshops on earth-centered topics and publishes the online journal of practical spirituality, Sky Earth Sea.